In this article we examine structural issues in the RTI Bill which are needed to be addressed to make RTI more effective .
Though the actual time period under section 19 in which to give information is 30 days and 48 hours for life and liberty cases there are extensions granted again.
The extension is granted under section 24 which gives an extension of 45 days when request is for a large volume of records or necessitates a search through a large volume of record, Consultations are necessary to process the request which cannot reasonably be completed within the time allotted and the extension is necessary to protect an essential Government interest or to protect the rights of any person.
Under Section 26 this can increase again to 90 days for extraordinary situation.
The 45 day extension itself is more than the time required but a 90 day extension will in most cases lead to undue delays and the information becoming useless by the time it comes.
Also both section 24 and 26 should state clearly that 48 hours is still applicable for life and liberty cases
The Act under section 41 says that a person who does not get information within thirty days can appeal to local courts/National Tribunal and section 47 says a person not happy with local courts/National Tribunal can file an appeal within ten days to the High Court. The time period to file a complaint is not enough and needs to be increased so that a proper complaint can be filed especially if it is a court.
Section 45 of the Act says in its decision, the Local Court or National Tribunal has the power to impose any of the penalties provided under this Act. However no penalties have been specifically provided under this act.
Similarly there is a comprehensive list of information that needs to be proactively disclosed under section 9 but the bill does not mandate that responsibility should be fixed for compliance with section 9 and penalties are imposable if there is non-compliance.
The absence of penalties and fixed responsibility will not give the Act the teeth it needs.
The Bill has not explicitly stated that information can be taken from the private sector.
Under section 3 “Official information” is defined as information in the possession, custody or control of a public authority, including information to which a public authority has access in connection with its functions.
This is too vague to cover and so the phrase, ’including information to which a public authority has access in connection with its functions,’ can be modified to say, ‘information that a public authority is authorised, under any other law or regulation, to access from a private body or any other body that is not on its own a public authority’.
Information and Media Officers
Section 13 of the Act says, ‘Every public authority shall, within three months of the enactment of this Act, designate as many IMOs in all administrative units or offices under it as may be necessary to provide information to persons requesting for the information under this Act.’
The problem with this section is that it is too vague and puts all the onus of information sharing and also bearing the ramifications of not sharing information on junior IMO’s officers. It should have provision where senior officials are also responsible for sharing information as junior IMO’s will not be able to effectively get information if all the responsibility lies only with them.
Cost of information
One way of discouraging people is by making the cost of information to be given very high or making it inconvenient.
As of now section 29 says ‘where the decision is taken to provide the information upon payment of an additional fee representing the cost of providing the information…’.
It should be clarified that this cost can only include the actual cost of making copies, including photocopies, or collecting samples, in the most economical way, and cannot include costs of salaries of the staff or other incidental costs which are a part of the normal functioning of the government.
Section 14.1 says, ‘A request for official information shall be… submitted in such form and manner as the public authority may prescribe.’
Either delete this or specify that such a format would only be recommendatory and not compulsory and no application would be rejected if it is not in the recommended format. Otherwise, the process would be very user unfriendly for the poor and semiliterate person, especially in the rural areas, and promote their dependence on lawyers and paid middle-men.
A big danger with the Act is that under Section 53 it allows, ‘Every public authority or the National Tribunal shall make rules and regulations, consistent with this Act’.
There should be one uniform set of rules for the whole country. Otherwise it would be very difficult for people to find out which rule applies to which office and lead to multiple interpretations and confusion.